AFTER HIS FATHER cuffed him, Carson Steele’s temple slammed into the corner of the wall by the refrigerator. It happened so fast that, despite all the times it had happened, and there were a lot, he still wasn’t prepared. So his hand came up to curl around the corner too late to soften the blow as the sharp pain spread from his temple though his right eye and into his jaw. Doubling that, his left cheekbone stung from the back of his father’s hand slamming into it.
“Trash fuckin’ stinks!” his father yelled. “What’s the point a’ you, boy? You good for nothin’?”
Carson had learned not to respond. Anything he said made it worse. He could defend himself and get his ass kicked. He could apologize and get his ass kicked.
Problem was, he could be silent and get his ass kicked too.
But his dad had a woman at their house, and even though they were both slaughtered on beer and vodka, if his dad had a woman (which he did surprisingly often, regardless that he was a jackhole, and not only to Carson), his father would have other things on his mind. This being the reason Carson hadn’t been prepared for his dad to have a go at him.
When he turned from the wall, still holding on to the edge and battling the pain, and looked into his old man’s eyes, his dad just muttered, “Piece of shit. Good for nothin’. For fuck’s sake, do somethin’ worth somethin’ in your sorry life, take out the fuckin’ trash.”
Then he moved to the fridge, opened it, nabbed a six pack, slammed it, and stormed out.
Carson went to the trash.
It was a third full.
His father was right. It stunk. Carson had no idea what the man threw in there, but whatever it was smelled lethal.
The same thing had happened last week, though. The garbage hadn’t been half full, his dad tossed something in that smelled to high heaven, and unable to bear the stench, Carson took it out.
The minute he came back, he got open-palmed smacked across the face because “We’re not made of fuckin’ money, you piece of shit! I’m not a millionaire who can afford fifty trash bags a week, for fuck’s sake! Wait until it’s goddamned full!”
He couldn’t win for losing.
This didn’t bother Carson. He had a good memory, which sucked, seeing as every one of them wasn’t one he’d want to remember.
He was used to losing.
He took the garbage out to the alley and tossed it in the Dumpster. As he was dropping the lid, he saw his neighbor roll up in his pickup.
The man slid his window down and stopped.
“Hey, Car, how’s it hangin’, bud?” Linus Washington asked.
Then Linus’s eyes narrowed on Carson’s face.
Linus was a big, black guy who’d lived next door to them for the last three years. Good guy, serial dater, but he’d had a steady woman for the last year. Carson liked her. She was pretty, had a smokin’ body, but he liked the way she looked at Linus the best. Like he could do anything. Like if he went to the Pacific Ocean, raised his arms, and spread them wide, the sea would part.
Yeah, that’s what he liked about her best.
Sometime recently, Linus had got on bended knee but Carson only knew that because his dad had told him she’d accepted the ring, then said, “Dumb fuck. Gettin’ his shit tied to a woman. Stupidest thing you can do, boy, gettin’ your shit tied to a woman. Learn that now, save you a world a’ hurt.”
He understood this coming from his dad. Carson’s mom was beautiful. He’d seen pictures. That was the only way his mother was in his life. Stuffed in an envelope full of pictures shoved at the back of his father’s nightstand. Pictures just of her, smiling and looking gorgeous. Pictures of her and his dad, both of them smiling, looking happy.
She left before Carson could even crawl. He had no memories of her. His father never spoke of her, except the constant trash he talked about women that Carson knew was directed at her.
He also knew better than to ask.
And last he knew that she left her baby before he’d even learned to say the word mom.
He could get this, if his old man knocked her around the way he did Carson.
He also didn’t get it.
Not at all.
“It’s hangin’, Lie,” Carson muttered, dipping his chin and turning toward their back gate.
“You wanna come over, get a Coke, watch a game?” Linus called before Carson could turn his back on him and their conversation.
“Got shit to do,” Carson kept muttering, moving toward the gate.
“Bud!” Linus yelled.
Carson drew in a breath and turned back.
“Anytime you wanna come over and hang, my door’s open. Yeah?” Linus said what he’d said before a lot.
“Yeah,” Carson continued to mutter, knowing he’d take him up on that, as he had hundreds of times since the man moved next door.
This just wouldn’t be one of those times. He didn’t go over after his dad had a go at him. And the reason he didn’t was right then written on Linus’s face.
Linus was giving him a look that Carson read. He’d honed his skills at reading people, started doing it the minute he could cogitate. If he didn’t, he’d have it far worse than he did from his old man.
But the look on Linus’s face said he didn’t know if he wanted to climb out of his truck and give Carson a hug or if he wanted to climb out of his truck, slam into Carson’s house, and kick his dad’s ass.
Sometimes he dreamed of Linus kicking his dad’s ass. The man was built. He was tall. He’d wipe the floor with Jefferson Steele.
But most of the time, he dreamed of doing it himself.
He didn’t because his dad kept him fed. He kept a roof over his head. He kept clothes on his back. He needed the jackhole.
When he didn’t, things would change.
But he didn’t court disaster for Linus. Linus was a good man. If he had a go at his dad, his dad would stop at nothing to put Linus in a world of hurt any way he could.
Linus didn’t need that. The woman who looked at him like he could move mountains didn’t need that. And Linus didn’t need to give it to a woman who he looked at like the first day that dawned for him was the day he laid eyes on her.
“Take care of yourself, Car,” Linus said quietly.
Carson nodded and moved to and through the gate, lifting a hand behind him as he did in a lame goodbye.
The goodbye was lame. He was lame. Weak. Pathetic. Of his own free will, walking away from Linus and into a filthy, stinking pit that held nothing for him but pain, violence, and neglect.